Frank Vogel wins a bold gamble for Indy

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:30
AM ET
By D.J. Foster
ESPN.com
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In the movie “Hoosiers," coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) justifies the decision to handicap his team by playing only four players with one simple line:

"My team is on the floor."

After a tight 104-102 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, let's just say that Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel was this close to needing a whole lot more than one line to explain himself.

Really, though, that wouldn't be a new task for Vogel to take on. After all, he's been the one charged with figuring out exactly why the Pacers have suffered through an unprecedented collapse. Coming in, Indiana had piled up six straight road losses, possessed the second-worst offensive efficiency in the league since the All-Star break and had scored just 23 points in the first half against the Atlanta Hawks in their last outing.

With the playoffs looming, the Pacers needed to find a way to break out of the slump.

This was certainly one hell of a way to do it.
[+] Enlarge Chris Copeland
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports Chris Copeland hit the game winner for Indiana against the Bucks, and there was much rejoicing.

Against the lowly Bucks, Vogel did the unthinkable by benching all five of his starters, the same group that has logged 1,432 minutes together as a unit this season.

Instead, who was Vogel's team on the floor?

Donald Sloan, Evan Turner, Rasual Butler, Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi -- a group that had played a whopping 11 minutes together on the season.

It's not like this was a risk-free proposition and a chance to get his starters some rest with no ramifications. This wasn't Gregg Popovich punting a game in the middle of the season on the second part of a back-to-back. The Pacers were just a half-game back of the Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference's top seed and home-court advantage going in, so there were real stakes at play.

There's a reason we usually see bold tactics like this happen only in the movies. It's safer and probably smarter to stand idly by, to remain patient, to hope that things will change naturally. If the Pacers kept failing and the mystery remained unsolved, the blame would at least be shared or chalked up as inexplicable. A big part of coaching is self-preservation, especially in the NBA.

But Vogel threw caution to the wind in a way that jeopardized no one but himself. If the Pacers were to lose to the league's worst team because he benched every starter, he would have absorbed all the blame. Can you imagine the scrutiny if Indiana were playing in Miami for a Game 7 instead of at home? Or if it never made it that far? Vogel was plenty aware of what this move could end up meaning, both for his team and his career.

Yes, it was last-place Milwaukee, and yes, his team needed rest -- perhaps because he pushed it too hard during the regular season -- but redirecting all the pressure onto himself gave his starters a mental break too. This wouldn't be their hill to die on, no matter what.

With the game looking like it was headed for overtime in the last remaining seconds due to a boneheaded foul, Vogel drew up a play (not the picket fence, sadly) for Chris Copeland, a guy who has been an afterthought all season.

He made it.

A short second after the ball splashed through the net, there was Paul George rushing off the bench to hug him, with Roy Hibbert not far behind.

At least for a moment, the Pacers as a group got to stop analyzing to the point of paralysis and celebrate a game winner, even if it came in a game that shouldn't have required one in the first place.

While this win alone won't fix the Pacers, the message was sent loud and clear from Vogel to his team: The diffusion of responsibility needs to end here.

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